Since 2007 photographer Jade Doskow has been travelling the world documenting the former sites and structures of World’s Fairs – after the crowds, VIPs and sponsors have moved on. What she finds – or indeed doesn’t find – reveals much about how we collectively memorialise these spectacles, or forget them. In the run up to this year’s Expo in Milan – where she is working with the EXPOSED collective on documenting how the event is transforming the city – she spoke to uncube’s Fiona Shipwright about her methodologies for “excavating utopias”.
How did World’s Fairs’ sites come to be the subject of your work? Which was the first site you ever visited?
I have long been drawn to outdated architecture that’s been either clumsily repurposed or abandoned. The notion of time travel is a powerful one, and there is something of time travel involved when photographing a World’s Fair site – these are the remnants of a past vision of the future. Photography too is a sort of time machine, stopping light – and time – in its tracks.
It was a family vacation to Seville that first sparked the idea of photographing World’s Fair sites. I remember crossing Calatrava’s magnificent bridge by bus, travelling from the old city and entering into another world: that of the bizarre, fragmented remains of the 1992 World’s Expo. The visual and metaphysical juxtaposition between the grand old city and this strange environment of mediocre pavilion buildings was striking. Upon returning to New York I began researching other sites and became fascinated. The site here in New York at Flushing Meadows in Queens, used for the 1939 and 1964 Fairs, provided a fertile testing ground, as one of the remaining structures there is the magnificent ruin of Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion.
In 2006 I began studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York and developing the concept into a long-term project. The following year I spent a month in Europe shooting large-format and travelled to several Fair sites – Brussels, Seville, Barcelona, Paris – and I realised just how complex this project was going to be.
Have you been to any of the World’s Fairs during their run?
I have certain rules while making my work: staying on the actual fair site itself; not entering buildings to see the interiors; and not going to a live fair. However as rules are made to be broken, I may actually visit the fair in Milan this year as curiosity has got the better of me! After nearly eight years of photographing remains, I want to experience the splendour of the thing itself. One aspect I’m still figuring out is how much time must go by before I travel to a site. For example, I’m anxious to photograph the 2010 site in Shanghai but feel another few years need to pass.
Do you research a fair before going or do you prefer to just arrive and experience the architecture in the first instance?
A typical shoot lasts three to eight days (to allow for different qualities of light and weather), and my approach has become more finessed over the years. I spend a lot of time studying original fair maps and then lining them up with Google maps to see where everything is or would have been. I read about the designers and artists who were part of the fair and the theme.
I also research all the notable architecture I expect to be photographing. I want to see what the “recognisable” postcard views of a structure, such as the Space Needle or the Atomium, are. By studying the current surrounding environment of a structure, I want to challenge myself to make a picture that tells a very different story from that of the typically expected image of it.
Has your experience photographing World’s Fair structures influenced how you approach photographing architecture in general?
A resounding yes. These are often very challenging things to photograph well, and this is for a number of reasons – scale, proportion and access. One of my first shoots in 2007 was the Eiffel Tower. How to photograph it in a new way? I ended up dodging traffic to set up in the Place du Trocadéro to create an image of both the tower itself and the busloads of tourists getting off in front of the Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot.
I have a lot of respect for these buildings. They were designed to represent the pinnacle of human achievement and progress at the time of their construction; I treat every one as a monument no matter how cruddy its condition. I also try to contain some element of paradox within the image, usually elements of contemporary life, whether people, cars, trash cans or terrible renovations. Otherwise it’s a postcard.
The events themselves often seem to suffer from a certain flattening effect – with visitors, struggling to grasp just what they are for. As Berlin advertising agency Scholz & Friends once said of Expo 2000 in Hanover: “the organisers have failed to convey to the public a clear image of what Expo 2000 is going to be: an entertainment park, a blown-up museum, or a nature reserve.” Do you sometimes feel the same?
Great quote. All of my titles reflect the recent seemingly generic themes that are chosen, such as “Peace Through Understanding”, or “A New Humanism”. As World’s Fairs, bringing together multiple cultures, worldviews, artistic achievements and goals, how could the overall effect not be flattened out?
I should also add that the presence of anthropological racism as an element and fundamental shared idea at the early Fairs cannot be stressed enough, the basic concept of “look how far whites have come compared to these ‘primitive’ people of colour”. All the early Fairs had elements in them of human zoos, some with devastating consequences: there are shocking stories: a Native American woman who committed suicide after being put on display at a fair; the Filipinos who froze to death on an unheated train en route to the 1904 St. Louis fair as they were not dressed for the frigid Midwestern temperatures; the triumphant sculptures celebrating Belgium’s colonialisation of the Congo on the 1897 Brussels site. For all the apparent optimism of the World’s Fairs there is quite a dark history.
Could you talk a little bit about your working process? I understand you work on the final images for up to a year. Do you find your ideas and feelings about the sites and structures change over time?
I make photographs very slowly using a large-format camera. The final print size is large: averaging 40 inches by 50 inches. I then scan the negative and do post-production work in Adobe Photoshop. Each image dictates its own optimal size. The enormous size of structures require large-scale photographs so the viewer can appreciate fine details – such as cracks in the stone or weeds growing out of the corner.
One of my best-known photographs is of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montréal with a Solar Experimental House in the foreground. Prior to making it I was no expert on Fuller, but later I learned that this design was perhaps the first truly sustainable structure. I therefore felt the need to create a feeling of optimism and iridescence via the colour palette of the image – despite the site not being in great condition.
You’re currently working on both a book and documentary directed by Philip Shane entitled: “Searching for Lost Utopias”. Do you feel this has become the focus of the mission you are on? Is the project on-going or do you have an end point in mind?
The book will document the first eight years of the project and I hope to publish perhaps two or three more over the next ten years. The film is really Philip’s project and he has a lot of incredible footage already. We anticipate wrapping it up in 2016 to 2017.
I sincerely feel this is a lifetime project. I get to between three and seven sites a year and often feel the need to return to a site again, to understand how it is changing or being changed by human or natural intervention. I have now been to about 30 sites and have a long wish list of destinations. I’ve also started experimenting with apps and video pieces that supplement the still photographs. World’s Fairs are an incredibly meaty subject matter, and the more work I create, the more obsessed I become. As an artist it is an infinite source of inspiration and challenge.
– Interview by Fiona Shipwright
– Jade Doskow is an architectural and landscape photographer and a faculty member of the International Center of Photography and The School of Visual Arts, New York where she lives and works.
Searching for Lost Utopias: Jade Doskow, Photographer of Lost World's Fairs (in progress) a documentary film produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Philip Shane.